Tinkers and Tailors

The last time USC rang up Stanford for 49 big ones? Ironically, 1977: Chapter One, Book One of The Bill Walsh Saga. Ironic because those of you old enough or sufficiently willing to remember, 1977 was a vintage year for Stanford football. Particularly on the offensive side of the old pig bladder. You do remember OFFENSE, don't you? It's when you get yardage and points. If the memory of this is a little cloudy these days, we'll let you slide.

It was the maiden voyage of Walsh I, the sleek vessel designed and outfitted by the guy who set the Pac-8 conference agog with one of the most diabolically intelligent offensive philosophies ever seen in college football up to that time.  It retrospect, it was an early sketchbook of something that would be called, rightly or wrongly, the “West Coast” offense which was, for its part, an amalgam of ideas brought to life by such disparate  legends as Sid Gilman, Al Davis and Paul Brown.  And Walsh’s own secret sauce thrown in, like, “BAM!”, Emeril-style.  But, hey, we’re mixing our metaphors here like a remedial class at bartender school.

Walsh, according to legend, took the very best from each of his above-named mentors over the years, ran it through his own considerable template and, voila, trotted it out in cardinal and white for all the football world to behold during his rookie year at Stanford as head man.  It was an awesome thing to behold, make no mistake.  But on a rainy, blustery afternoon Lozangeles that first year, the magical mystery offense was ground, face-mask first, into the La Brea tarpit-like turf of the L.A. Coliseum.  Walsh’s guys got worked to the ugly tune of 49-zip.  And it wasn’t that close.  Signature moment: freshman running back Darrin Nelson being picked up by the back of his jersey and thrown – and I mean literally body-slammed – into a particularly moist section of Coliseum turf.  No flags.

All of this just goes to show that even when you’re hot, as Stanford certainly was during that first year of the Jimmy Carter administration, there are moments when things go awry.  When even the best laid schemes of diabolically intelligent offensive minds don’t ensure squat.  Sometimes, when you’re up against a physically superior foe, at whom you’re staring up, at a neck-bending angle, in every match-up, you’re bound to go down and, in the earthy parlance of early Walsh guru Davis, go down hard.

Which brings up the not-so-fun-and-gun gaieties of last week, and a decidedly superior opponent.  Forget the fact that Stanford smoked these guys just a year ago, and year before that and the year before that.  There was no way the Cardinal were going to notch a four-peat to soothe the increasingly irritable, and openly-questioning faithful.  Indeed, the Card’s 17-point orgy of offense was, to these eyes anyway, a mild surprise given most of this season’s flailing futility.  The question is, does it amount to the silver lining we’re all straining to recognize?  Did Kyle Matter’s string of completions to open the contest signal some, dare we say it, progress?  Is there a there there?

We don’t know.  And neither does anyone else, really. We do know that as accomplished an alchemist Walsh was, he was known to come a cropper occasionally.  Even to outsmart himself at times.  The examples are best left to another column on what we hope will be a happier moment for Stanford football someday.  What we do know, and remember vividly, is what the great man would eagerly tell anyone carrying a notebook and valid media credentials when asked about his secret for success. Many coaches, he would say, make the mistake of trying to force-fit the talent on hand into the pre-fabricated system they bring with them. Sometimes this works.  More often, it fails.  The superior approach, he concluded, was to take a hard look at what you had to work with, in terms of physical talent, and design things that would exploit your assets and minimize exposure for the liabilities.  Since the Boston College game, we’ve been trying to figure out to which of these camps the Teevens regime bears allegiance.  Is Stanford football being tailored, or simply tinkered with?

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